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More gay and bisexual men will now be able to donate blood under finalized FDA rules

The U.S. is moving to ease restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men and other groups that traditionally face higher risks of HIV. Here, tubes direct blood from a donor into a bag in Davenport, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022.
Charlie Neibergall
/
AP
The U.S. is moving to ease restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men and other groups that traditionally face higher risks of HIV. Here, tubes direct blood from a donor into a bag in Davenport, Iowa, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Thursday it had officially eliminated restrictions that had previously prohibited many blood donations by gay and bisexual men — a longstanding policy that critics say is discriminatory.

In a news release, the federal agency said it will recommend a series of "individual risk-based questions" that will be the same for every blood donor, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or sex. Those who have had anal sex with a new sexual partner, or more than one sexual partner, within the last three months would be asked to wait to donate blood.

"The implementation of these recommendations will represent a significant milestone for the agency and the LGBTQI+ community," Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in the release.

With the updated guidelines, most gay and bisexual men who are in a monogamous relationship with a man will no longer have to refrain from sex in order to donate blood.

Previously, FDA guidelines for donating blood — which were last updated in 2020 — stated that men who have sex with men are allowed to donate blood after a three-month deferral period in which they refrain from having sex with another man.

While the number of people eligible to donate blood has expanded, the agency said it will continue to monitor the safety of the blood supply.

The 40-year-old restrictions were to protect the blood supply from HIV

Restrictions on donating blood date back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic and were designed to protect the blood supply from HIV.

At first, gay and bisexual men were completely prohibited from donating blood. But over time, the FDA ultimately relaxed the lifetime ban. However, the agency still kept some limits in place.

The newly updated guidelines are aimed at addressing years-long criticisms that the previous policy was discriminatory and outdated, and posed yet another barrier to bolstering the nation's blood supply.

Blood banks already routinely screen donated blood for HIV.

And for decades, organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Red Cross and numerous LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have called for a rule change.

The changes are a mostly welcome shift in a new direction, advocates say

Reaction to the news has been mostly positive from advocates, medical groups and blood banks.

"This shift toward individual donor assessments prioritizes the safety of America's blood supply while treating all donors with the fairness and respect they deserve," said Kate Fry, CEO of America's Blood Centers, a non-profit organization that brings together community-based and independent blood centers, in a statement.

Fry said that the FDA's final guidance is based on data that shows the best protection against diseases, like HIV, is through strong testing of all blood donation — and a uniform screening process for each donor.

President and CEO of GLAAD Sarah Kate Ellis echoed that approval in a statement, saying "The FDA's decision to follow science and issue new recommendations for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, who selflessly donate blood to help save lives, signals the beginning of the end of a dark and discriminatory past rooted in fear and homophobia,"

However, Ellis said while the new guidance is a step in the right direction, there is still a barrier for LGBTQ+ people who are on PrEP, an FDA-approved drug proven to prevent the transmission of HIV, who may want to donate blood.

"GLAAD urges the FDA to continue to prioritize science over stigma and treat all donors and all blood equally," she added.

NPR's Rob Stein and Will Stone contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.